‘Relentless calls and constant abuse’: why Britain’s vets are in crisis

By the summer of 2020, veterinary practices were beginning to feel the effects of the pandemic pet boom. That was the time that Melanie, a small-animal vet from the southeast of England, realised she no longer wanted to be in the profession. The feeling left her at a loss. All she’d ever done was eat, breathe and sleep veterinary medicine. Like many vets she had been inspired since she was a child: religiously watching TV shows such as Animal Hospital and Vets in Practice, mucking out stables to embellish her university application and completing a five-year degree before finding work at a busy practice. It was a vocation, not a job: she simply loved animals. “Ever since I knew what a vet was, I wanted to be one,” she says. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to do that – until now.” But for Melanie, the pressure of lockdown was just the start. During the initial mayhem, practices were forced to work within strict Covid restrictions. Many team members were off sick, isolating or furloughed. Melanie worked three shifts on, three shifts off with a skeleton staff, clocking two hours’ overtime every evening out of a sense of duty. The busiest day in the practice calendar was usually Boxing Day. But between March and July 2020, says Melanie, every day felt as if it was Boxing Day “if the toilet was flooded and the lab was on fire”. Staff bounced from the reception to operations, from remote appointments to emergencies, shepherding animals in for treatment from the street while brushing off abuse from stressed-out owners who were unhappy about wearing masks, didn’t want to wait outside or refused to accept that they couldn’t receive a home visit to have their cat’s claws clipped.

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Then the infamous surge in new pets struck. The practice was swamped with lockdown puppies and kittens needing check-ups, vaccinations and neutering. The intensity of the work continued. To Melanie, it all became a bit of a blur – but one moment that changed everything was when she heard that the partner of a friend, both of whom were vets, had taken her own life. Covid restrictions meant she was unable to offer support in person. It was crushing. The profession she loved seemed to be in disarray.

As the pandemic wore on, Melanie’s exhausted colleagues began to bow out. By late 2021, her practice – which usually has about 15 vets – had lost half of them and only managed to replace a handful. One of those to depart for an alternative line of work had been a vet for eight years. “At the end of the first lockdown there was a sense of camaraderie,” says Melanie. “Now everyone’s just broken.”

The pandemic has been good for pets. For vets, less so. Puppies and kittens have made things bearable for many of us, yet for those who keep our companion animals in good health, the meteoric increase in pet ownership has been overwhelming. A total of 3.2m households in the UK have acquired a pet since the start of Covid, according to a report by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association. The majority of dog and cat owners believed their pet had an “extremely” positive effect on their wellbeing during the pandemic, according to a large-scale survey by researchers at the University of the West of Scotland. Meanwhile, Vetlife, a charity that provides emotional, financial and mental-health support to the veterinary community, received 4,000 calls to its helpline in 2020 – its busiest year on record. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) conducted a survey of veterinary professionals in July and August 2021 and found that 80% saw an increase in their caseload due to a rise in animal ownership. Many felt this took a toll on them, with 65% experiencing conflict between their wellbeing and their professional roles. It’s part of a perfect storm in which staff shortages due to the pandemic and Brexit have collided with record demand. There’s even a cat vaccine shortage at the moment. It’s just another thing on a long list of problems for a weary vet.
‘It’s all about conditions and stress’: Rosie Allister with Charlie.‘It’s all about conditions and stress’: Rosie Allister with Charlie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer
The reality of modern veterinary care is very different to how the public imagines it. That’s one reason why Gareth Steel, a Scottish vet, started jotting down his thoughts. He hopes that the resulting book, Never Work with Animals, which is published this month, will “help close the gap between perception and reality”. The book documents the grit and emotion of the job: working 100-hour weeks for minimum wage, tackling health problems as varied as the animals – and owners – themselves.

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For Steel, hit TV shows like All Creatures Great and Small, based on a series of books by James Herriot, have nurtured a romanticised notion of the life of a vet. “That was written in the 1960s, about the 1930s,” he says. “The vet will go to see a cow, then maybe drive back and see the neighbour’s dog… and that’ll be one episode. Compare that to now, where the average UK vet sees a new animal with a new problem every 10 minutes. And with the staff shortages that’s often your problem to solve as an individual with little help or guidance.” Amid the recent pet boom, the stakes for delivering good veterinary care have never been higher. Pets have transcended their animal status to become royal members of the household they reside in: fur babies, proxy children, influencers. People – quite reasonably – expect a level of care to match. But while the British public is used to free healthcare, there’s no NHS for pets. “People really don’t understand what animal healthcare costs,” says Steel. “Through no fault of their own, people have slightly naive perspectives on how veterinary care is delivered and what it costs, the skills involved and how available that might be to them,” he says. “Probably 90% of the stress of my job has to do with this. Having to say to a client, here’s [financial] option one, or two, or three, rather than just being able to concentrate on the medicine.” It doesn’t help that many of these new pets are uninsured. Despite the pet boom, insurance subscriptions have only increased by 1%, according to the Association of British Insurers, while a Mintel report suggests that around half of pets bought since March 2020 remain without cover. It means many people only realise the true cost of pet ownership when their animal becomes sick or injured. In an interview with Radio 5 Live last August, James Russell, president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), said the sector was “exhausted”. He stopped short of requesting that the public stop getting pets (just), instead asking people to “think long and hard before they take on a new pet to make sure they can meet all its needs, including access to veterinary care”. Insurance or no, some practices have had to close their books to new clients, which was once unheard of, yet still new pets keep joining the queue.Bianca Bassanello, 35, a vet from South Wales, works in a 24/7 emergency clinic. She is regularly faced with challenging and emotional negotiations with owners who lack cover. The lucrative business of designer dogs has led to particular problems, she tells me, such as unlicensed dealers showing up with an animal in need of an emergency caesarean or puppies bought from Gumtree by people who can’t afford to care for them. “People are spending thousands of pounds on a French bulldog and then it ends up being put down because they don’t have any money left to treat it,” she says. “It’s like people paying for a Ferrari, but they can’t afford the tyres.”

Why do they do that? When dogs kick after going to the bathroom, they are using the scent glands on their paws to further mark their territory.

In some cases vets ask the owner to sign the animal over to them so they can pay for the treatment themselves. “We’re strongly advised not to do it,” says Bassanello, “but sometimes it gets to that point of emotional fatigue with the situation. You don’t know what to do with the animal, but you think, ‘I would rather own that dog and pay £1,500 to get it fixed and give it to a charity to rehome than let it die.’” She adds: “Sometimes people refuse to give up their pet – they’d rather the animal was put to sleep. How are you supposed to move on from that?”
‘The average UK vet sees a new animal with a new problem every 10 minutes’: Gareth Steele with Mali the cat, photographed at his practice in Neath, South Wales.‘The average UK vet sees a new animal with a new problem every 10 minutes’: Gareth Steele with Mali the cat, photographed at his practice in Neath, South Wales. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

The high emotional stakes, the staff shortages, the cost of treatment, the stress of the pandemic… it’s all leading to an increase of abuse towards veterinary staff. Almost six in 10 vets experienced some form of intimidation on the job in 2020, according to the BVA, an increase of 10% on the previous year. Vet nurses and receptionists often bear the brunt of it. One vet told me she had seen more abuse in the past 18 months than in all her seven years of working, adding that she has had to deregister three clients from her practice because of their behaviour in the past six months alone.

Bassanello tells me she never needed to call the police to work before the pandemic. “I’ve received direct threats myself, been called the C-word at 1am and I know of cases where the police have had to become involved due to harassment on social media,” she says. “There have been clients where we are advised to call the police should they show up to the clinic, but we’re still professionally obliged to treat their animal.”

For Melanie, dealing with abuse during an already challenging time was “absolutely disheartening”, and she is far from alone in feeling disillusioned. One vet, who qualified in 2014, told me she stepped back from the front line after spending most of the pandemic working 50-hour weeks in a practice that was “chronically understaffed”. Others described the dismay at falling out of love with a job they’d always wanted to do. “I worked my backside off to become a vet,” said one. “Now I don’t know why.” Many vets are throwing in the towel shortly after qualifying. There has already been a significant drop in new joiners and nearly half of those to quit have been working for less than five years, according to RCVS, which held an urgent summit on recruitment and retention in late 2021.

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With morale low, the mental health of many vets is suffering. One vet told me that “around half” of her colleagues are on some sort of medication for anxiety or depression. “There are probably more colleagues than I’m aware of that are struggling emotionally, physically, mentally,” she said. “It’s just neverending. You see 20 animals a day and we get so anxious about getting something wrong – that one mistake will be the one that ends up with the owner attacking you on social media.”

Danny Chambers, a vet and mental-health campaigner, runs the Veterinary Voices Facebook group, which has more than 15,000 members. “I’d sum it up in two words,” he says. “Exhaustion and burnout.” Rosie Allister is a vet surgeon who manages the Vetlife helpline and researches mental health and wellbeing in the veterinary community. Since the pandemic, the helpline, which operates as a 24/7 support service, has encountered a 25% increase in calls. One in 20 calls are from a vet experiencing suicidal thoughts and another one in 20 describes self-harm. “There’s a lot of stuff around working conditions and stress,” she says. “I don’t think people realised there would be sustained pressure for so long.”The pandemic has added to the strain, but poor mental health is a long-term issue within the veterinary community. Vets have a suicide rate four times higher than the national average and twice as high as other healthcare professionals, according to Oxford’s Centre for Suicide Research. The reasons for this are complicated and it is not, as is sometimes assumed, due to the stress or sorrow of having to routinely put animals to sleep. As Allister emphasises, suicide is always multifactoral, but some studies have suggested that the attitude vets have towards euthanasia could be a contributory factor, as could access to drugs or firearms. Many vets have a tendency to hold themselves to very high standards and can often work long hours alone. Ultimately, it’s a challenging, unpredictable job, with high stakes resting on one’s ability to do it properly, so occupational stress is high.

Be realistic. Unrealistic goals will only prevent you from growing. There are two common mistakes a dog owner can make that will slam the brakes hard on any potential progress you might be hoping for. First, the expectations we place on our dogs and ourselves. The misguided belief that your dog “should” be performing or responding at a certain predetermined level. Another mistake many owners make is having unrealistic assumptions. Many of us assume that our dog understands what we want and that he knows what we’re asking of him. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some of us assume that the dogs failure to perform means he’s either rebelling, stubborn, or just plain stupid.

At times, this sense of duty can override the welfare of the individual. “It’s difficult when you feel as if you’re constantly pushing yourself because there comes a point when that becomes the norm,” says Allister. “And that’s really hard for people. It’s challenging at the moment for those who need to decompress and have more of a balance again. But how do you achieve that when there’s still this huge demand and you can’t recruit enough staff to help you?”

For vets like Melanie, it was difficult to see how to make the job work without making a dramatic change. Midway through 2020, she switched to working purely nights. It seems counterintuitive but it was the only thing that kept her in the job for the following year. “The beauty of night work is that people only call you if they really need you,” she says. “I could step away from dealing with the relentless calls and the constant barrage of abuse and just focus on the animals.” Towards the end of last year, she gave birth to her first child. She’s not sure if she’ll return to the profession. “I’m waking up every three hours throughout the night to feed my baby, but it feels like a break,” she says. “I don’t have to wake up and worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Vetlife provides a 24/7 phone and email helpline. If you are affected by any of the issues in this article, contact Vetlife Helpline on 0303 040 2551 or email helpline.vetlife.org.uk. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected]

Some names and details have been changed in this article